Joan Benbow’s book A Walkabout Life was launched at Coast Life Midwifery on 22 September 2018. You may have seen a report about it on the Channel 7 local news in the week following. Joan is in her mid 90s and still going strong. Following are the notes of Jan Johnston’s speech launching the book.
I searched long and hard to find some delightful things that helped the newcomers to the novitiate of the Sacred Heart nuns in their Sydney convent. Let me see … As it was a semi-silent order there was only one hour of conversation per day, usually when the novices were stitching their calico bodices meant to change their shape and reduce their womanly appearance. During this hour, nothing personal was allowed to be said – no family news, no book discussion, (maybe the bible or religious dogma) no talk of the daily news as no one was allowed to read a newspaper or listen to a radio. Many nuns lost the art of conversation because of the strictness of this rule.
Joan did manage to read a book or two, one she carried with her in the desert – Anne of Green Gables – to be read when only the wallabies were watching.
Then there was the Great Silence, no saying a word, except perhaps in prayer, and under your breath, from lights out till daybreak. A fire? A flood? Murder and mayhem? No talking thank you. Joan was conditioned by this rule long after she left the order.
And what about the rule of no particular friendships. Most of the young girls in those days would not have had a clue about the reason for this ridiculous commandment. However it was strictly observed amongst the nuns for years. Closely watched by the powers that be.
Last but not least, there was the scourge, a whip-like instrument of knotted rope, used to lash the bare buttocks every Friday night, just in case the weekly shaming and humiliation hadn’t quite worked.
I really couldn’t find much fun to be had as a novice, but I guess there was some laughter and jokes played behind the backs of the strict novice mistress. And who was the main instigator of any light heartedness it seems?
Certainly not the will breaker! Joan’s novice mistress told her, in one disturbing episode, that the purpose of all the humiliating discipline was to break Joan’s will. When it was completely destroyed, only then would they give it back to her.
Will breaking brought three results: One: The will breakers would succeed in their job, and wills were broken, never to be seen again; two: they would succeed in sending some of their subjects to psychiatric hospitals, never to be seen again; or three: they would fail miserably as in Joan’s case, with the will held tightly intact.
Joan’s trouble, as a religious person, was that she was larger than life. Despite the fact that she may have tried to be inconspicuous, I doubt that was ever going to be a possibility. There was always someone wanting to, as it were, break her will! There were these special will-breakers in all the noviciates. Joan was always ahead of the game, but that wasn’t a good thing. She wanted better conditions for her bush families, and usually managed to achieve success in spite of constant opposition from the religious powers that be.
Try as they might to intimidate, humiliate and shame Joan, she never succumbed to their psychological torment. They succeeded in leaving her worn and spent, with a nervous complaint which played havoc with her whole system. Indeed, she lost her appetite, appendix, her gall bladder, and most of her hair at regular intervals, but it only made her stronger.
Joan’s book, A Walkabout Life, tells how it was for her, warts and all, whether as a young girl within a family setting, as a novice and a practicing nurse on Aboriginal mission stations in Australia and Catholic missions in Papua New Guinea. It also brings to life her time as a lay woman, still nursing, as well as putting her hand to whatever job that would make a difference to the people she worked amongst. Sometimes it was in palliative care on the Sunshine Coast, sometimes at a school in the Southern Highlands of NSW, other times as a nurse at remote communities like Bamaga and Yarrabah in Cape York Peninsula, or with the Bush Nursing Service at Bollon. It definitely was a walkabout life. Joan didn’t realise that there was such a thing as an old age pension, and she worked until well into her seventies, before calling it a day.
Joan recently read the book by Colette Livermore – Hope Endures. Colette had spent 11 years working with the order started by Mother Teresa. Colette could not understand Mother Teresa’s philosophy of the promotion of suffering and the necessity to endure suffering as a way to enter heaven. Colette wished to prevent suffering, so after 11 years of heartbreak, decided to do something about it by leaving the order and becoming a medical Doctor. She has recently retired, and lives in NSW. Joan and Colette have spoken by phone and realised they are kindred spirits.
Joan’s journey has had its own heartbreak, but with Aboriginal people it was very different, where Joan was able not only to help bring babies into the world, but make sure that those babies’ lives had an excellent start, that their mothers learnt under Joan’s tutelage how to prevent illness, how to practice hygiene. How to encourage correct nutrition. Joan was able to prevent suffering, never to prolong it. Meals for toddlers, spoon and plate, little dining table and chairs!
But with all her major achievements, especially the building of a modern hospital on Rossell Island, with toilets for goodness sake, there always seemed to be someone who was intent to bring Joan down, to criticize her harshly for giving the ‘natives’ something that white people only should benefit from. After 25 years of the testing, the triumph, the tragedy of losing close friends, of being beaten but unbowed, Joan gained the strength of will to submit her resignation. Climax or anti-climax. You will have to read the book to find out.
Joan and I pondered on the idea that Faith is something you die for, and Dogma is something you kill for. It seemed to Joan that the dogmatism of the church may be prolonging something like Medieval Asceticism, taking the church, at least the religious nuns, back to a time where the church was punitive, static, not positive and dynamic. Thankfully things have changed, but has it been too late? Will the church ever admit that female adherents like Joan would revolutionise the Catholic church if they were allowed to have a say in proceedings.
The time Joan spent in the Northern Territory coincided with changes that were happening to Indigenous people in Remote Communities, on Mission stations like Arltunga, Santa Teresa and Daly River. Going back to Santa Teresa after 50 years must have been a luminous experience – seeing folk she had bought into the world, and their children as well.
Joan’s story has taken me into the lives of those people. Some of her babies are grandmothers and grandfathers themselves. Her acquaintances include such folk as Dame Carol Kidu, a former PNG parliamentarian, in fact the only woman ever to sit in the PNG Parliament. Also Archbishop Virgil Copas, former Archbishop of Port Moresby, incidentally an old boy of St. Mary’s College Toowoomba. And of course, the wonderful Marmee, Maria Noorenberghe who mentored Joan when she arrived in PNG, and who was later killed in a plane crash. Many others as well gathered along the way.
It has been a delight to meet them all in Joan’s Walkabout Life. I would say three lives in one, and still going strong.